Our last choice (so far!) from the Irish anthology, Lifelines: New and Collected, Letters from Famous People About Their Favourite Poem, is Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Manners,” chosen by contemporary Irish poet Vona Groarke, who wrote, “It records an age and a state of mind entirely without cynicism: a secure, small world in which no-one can lose his way. The child-like speaking voice is brilliantly achieved with rudimentary, sing-song rhymes which accommodate the jolly generosity and good faith of the child and her grandfather….
Hovering at the edge of its simplicity is something much darker, suggested by the obscured faces of the passengers in the cars: a future in which the values of the child and her grandfather will be as outmoded as their wagon seat; an impersonal, technological world which will have no place for the gentle intimacy of manners. The poem marks the belated transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries, and from innocence to painful experience. Its success lies, I think, in doing so without the slightest trace of either rhetoric or sentiment.”
“Manners” by Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979):
For a Child of 1918
My grandfather said to me
as we sat on the wagon seat,
‘Be sure to remember to always
speak to everyone you meet.’
We met a stranger on foot.
My grandfather’s whip tapped his hat.
‘Good day, sir. Good day. A fine day.’
And I said it and bowed where I sat.
Then we overtook a boy we knew
with his big pet crow on his shoulder.
‘Always offer everyone a ride;
don’t forget that when you get older,’
my grandfather said. So Willy
climbed up with us, but the crow
gave a ‘Caw!’ and flew off. I was worried.
How would he know where to go?
But he flew a little way at a time
from fence post to fence post, ahead;
and when Willy whistled he answered.
‘A fine bird,’ my grandfather said,
‘and he’s well brought up. See, he answers
nicely when he’s spoken to.
Man or beast, that’s good manners.
Be sure that you both always do.’
When automobiles went by,
the dust hid the people’s faces,
but we shouted ‘Good day! Good day!
Fine day!’ at the top of our voices.
When we came to Hustler Hill,
he said that the mare was tired,
so we all got down and walked,
as our good manners required.
(From Poems by Elizabeth Bishop © 2011 by the Alice H. Methfessel Trust. Publisher’s Note and compilation © 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. Photo by David Prasad)